This article is part of our MLB Team Previews series.
2015 Giants Team Preview: Trying to Repeat
The Giants' 2014 season finished the same way it did in their previous two even-numbered years, with another championship trophy to add to the mantle. Like their previous two championship seasons in 2010 and 2012, the Giants weren't considered favorites to win it all in April. The rival Los Angeles Dodgers entered the season as the clear favorites to win the NL West and were considered by many to have the strongest roster top-to-bottom. But it was San Francisco who ended up victorious in the end, using timely hitting, a strong bullpen, and one of the best postseason pitching performances of all-time from Madison Bumgarner.
It wasn't all roses for the Giants, as they were up-and-down on their way to an 88-74 record. They got off to a hot start in April (17-11) and May (19-9), but hit the skids in June (10-16) and July (12-14) when injuries took a hold of the team. Marco Scutaro was expected to be ready at the beginning of the year, but only logged five games in 2014 and was a complete non-factor. The staff's horse, Matt Cain, failed to log 100 innings for the first time as a starter after bone chips had to be removed from his elbow mid-season. And their catalyst atop the lineup, Angel Pagan, battled through a nagging back injury and eventually had to be shut down for the year. However, the team was able to overcome the losses by a sparkling campaign from offseason acquisition Tim Hudson and contributions from unsung heroes Yusmiero Petit, Joe Panik and Gregor Blanco. They finished the regular season going 16-12 in August and 14-12 in September before taking down the Pirates, Nationals, Cardinals, and Royals in a historic postseason run from Bumgarner and company.
Despite finishing as champions in 2014, the Giants have definite question marks heading into the 2015 season. The most glaring is the loss of their slugging third baseman Pablo Sandoval to the Boston Red Sox. Despite his weight issues, Sandoval had been a stalwart in the middle of the Giants' lineup for his tenure with the club. They did little to address the issue, trading for 32-year-old Casey McGehee; who did have a solid season with the Marlins in 2014, but is a significant drop-off both offensively and defensively from Sandoval. Lost in the hype of Sandoval's departure was the signing of Mike Morse by the Miami Marlins. Morse provided what the Giants' were short on in 2014 - a power bat. With both of the sluggers departing, San Francisco will have to rely heavily on their pitching and defense if they want to have a shot at repeating as champions in 2015.
The Giants reportedly matched the Boston's 5-year, $95 million offer to Sandoval, but they weren't willing to go to nine figures and the slugger wanted to embark on a new challenge elsewhere. The loss is a big blow for the Giants, as Sandoval was not only a top third baseman in the league, but was also a fan-favorite. Mike Morse's loss is less severe, but will ultimately hurt the club's offense nonetheless. He possesses power that can't be restricted by any ballpark, which is invaluable in the cavernous AT&T Park. But his inability to stay healthy and lack of defense were the likely factors in the Giants not pursuing him more aggressively this offseason. Marco Scutaro was a non-factor in 2014 due to a back injury, and the emergence of Joe Panik at second base made the release of Scutaro an easy decision.
Signed free agent Nori Aoki (Royals)
The Giants poached one of the Royals' outfielders after beating them in the 2014 World Series. The club had a void in left field after Mike Morse left via free agency, and Aoki seems to be a strong fit for this offense. A career .287 hitter, Aoki makes a lot of contact and will likely hit second in the Giants' lineup to start the season. San Francisco did re-sign Gregor Blanco to a two-year deal, so he will definitely be in the mix at left and centerfield, but Aoki figures to see the lion's share of starts in left.
Signed free agent Justin Maxwell (Royals) to a minor league deal
Maxwell possesses a combination of power and speed that many teams seek, but his lack of patience at the plate (32.1 K%) will keep him in the Giants' minor league system unless injuries strike their outfield.
Signed free agent Curtis Partch (Reds) to a minor league deal
Partch throws hard, but doesn't have enough control or a solid enough off-speed pitch to be an effective back-end reliever. He's one acquisition away from losing his 40-man roster spot.
Signed free agent Carlos Triunfel (Dodgers) to a minor league deal
Triunfel was simply an organizational depth signing for San Francisco, as his tools don't project him to reach the majors anytime soon.
The Giants traded away a couple of Class-A pitching prospects in exchange for veteran third baseman Casey McGehee. Castillo has a live arm, but lacks control and will be a long-term project for Miami. Flores is a little more projectable, as he posted a tremendous 8.06 K/BB ratio to compliment his 2.73 ERA with Low-A Augusta. His ERA jumped to 4.09 with High-A San Jose, but his ability to throw strikes is what intrigued the Marlins.
Going the other way is 32-year-old Casey McGehee. After spending a year getting his game back on track in Japan, McGehee resurrected his career as the Marlins' everyday third baseman and cleanup hitter in 2014. Remarkably, McGehee drove in 76 runs despite knocking just four home runs in 691 plate appearances during his age-31 season. McGehee made up for his lack of power with consistent contact (15.8 K%) and a solid walk rate (9.7 BB%) and slashed .287/.355/.357 while functioning as a strong veteran presence in the locker room. McGehee should play almost every day in San Francisco and continue to see a fair amount of RBI opportunities.
Projected Lineup (vs. RHP)
Projected Lineup (vs. LHP)
Looking at the Giants' projected 2015 lineup, one thing comes to mind: lack of power. Outside of Posey and Pence, this team will have to rely on a station-to-station approach at the plate combined with timely hitting. The key for the Giants will be the success of the hitters outside of Posey and Pence, as teams may begin to pitch around the heart of the lineup if the surrounding pieces struggle. Manager Bruce Bochy seems committed to leaving Joe Panik in the two-hole, as his ability to make solid contact and get on base with singles is ideal for that spot. However, if he struggles out of the gates, expect Nori Aoki (who also makes great contact) to assume that role. The Giants will continue to try to keep Posey's legs fresh by moving him to first base against lefties and slotting Andrew Susac behind the dish, slightly cutting into Belt's at-bats. Their starters will likely see regular playing time, but Bochy is notorious for mixing and matching his batting order as the season progresses, so what you see listed may last a few months, or just a few games.
It is no surprise that Bumgarner has become the unquestioned ace of the staff after his historic run this past postseason. Hudson, Cain, and Peavy can all be interchanged in the rotation, but all three are locks to make the staff come Opening Day. The real question mark is Tim Lincecum, who had another inconsistent season in San Francisco. The club re-signed Yusmeiro Petit, who put together a career-year in 2014, and also brought back veteran starter Ryan Vogelsong on a one-year contract. The Giants will likely roll out Lincecum as their fifth starter in 2015, but he will have a short leash - not only in games - but also regarding his role as a starter.
Closer: Predicting Sergio Romo would falter enough to lose the closer's role would have been challenging enough, but seeing Santiago Casilla as his successor would've been even harder. Even though he entered 2014 with a 2.21 ERA in 220 innings with the Giants, he did so with an unimpressive strikeout rate (21.2%) and a flat-out bad K/BB ratio (1.98). He seemed to be living off of an incredible groundball rate (which yielded a tiny home run rate) and a keen ability to strand runners. The 34-year-old had the closer's role by early July and did well with it. As closer, he had a 24% strikeout rate and 4.0 K/BB ratio in 26 innings. It's a tiny sample for sure, but those skills will definitely play, especially since the groundball rate hit a career-high 56%, and he continued to strand runners at a tremendous clip (82%). He is lined up for the closer's role in 2015 and will likely be underrated because of age and the lack of an overpowering strikeout rate.
Key Bullpen Members: Outside of Sergio Romo's midseason struggles, the Giants' bullpen stayed consistent and was one of their strengths all year. The flip-flop of Romo and Casilla in the eighth and ninth innings will stick for 2015, but the rest of the pen will have a similar look to 2014.
Romo began the 2014 season as the Giants' closer, acquiring 18 saves and a 3.38 ERA in April and May, but then the floodgates opened. He had an 8.44 ERA in his next 17 appearances and was removed from the closer role. Part of it was just the volatility of small samples, but part of it was his ineffectiveness. He rebounded with a 1.80 ERA in the second half, including a .464 OPS against lefties, which bodes well for the future, especially if he regains the ninth-inning role. But for now, he will operate as the team's primary setup man.
With the lowest walk rate of his career, Jeremy Affeldt had one of his best seasons as a big leaguer in 2014. In addition to cutting back on the free passes, he induced grounders at his highest clip yet (66.7 GB%). Even in a bullpen that generates a few rogue saves, Affeldt hasn't logged one the last two seasons. His value is limited mostly to simulation formats, and very deep rotisserie formats that reward holds, as his strikeout rate continues to hover around the lower side of his career level (7.1 K/9) At 35, he'll look to close out his three-year deal with the Giants by making a run at the team's fourth World Series in the last six years.
Jean Machi repeated his surprisingly-productive 2013 campaign during his second year with the Giants, but a closer look reveals that there is cause for concern. First and foremost, his strikeout rate slipped from 24.2% in 2013 to 20.5% (6.9 K/9) last season. His BABIP also tumbled from .301 in 2013 to .230 last season, and his career mark (.261) suggests a correction is forthcoming. All told, his xFIP (3.37) is a better baseline expectation for those seeking to benefit from Machi's ability to rack up holds.
Possibly the most intriguing reliever in the Giants' bullpen this season is Hunter Strickland. Clocking the hardest fastball of the group (averaging 97.5 MPH), he has the ability to miss bats using pure power. He does throw a hard slider as a secondary pitch, but he has trouble controlling it, which lead to him relying on his fastball 75% of the time. This allowed hitters to sit on the fastball, which resulted in a catastrophic six home runs allowed in just 8.1 innings this past postseason. Despite the struggles in October, Strickland's power pitching style will keep him in the mix this season.
Notes of Import, Fantasy or Otherwise:
Will Madison Bumgarner's extensive workload in 2014 affect his production and/or health in 2015?
Bumgarner had a postseason for the ages in 2014, carrying the team on his back to a World Series win with a 1.03 ERA through 52.2 innings. Couple that with an 18-10 record and a 2.98 ERA (which was good for a fourth place finish in the Cy Young race) during the regular season and you have a stellar campaign. The worry with Bumgarner is the fact that he logged over 4,000 pitches in 270 innings, which is a worrisome statistic in this day and age of pitch and inning limits.
Bumgarner is a horse, and with his 6'5" 235-pound frame, he has the build to overcome a taxing workload. But it is hard to ignore the history of pitchers going down with injuries after extended workloads, especially those who rely on sliders heavily. In 2014, Bumgarner threw his slider 34.2% of the time, which is one of the highest usage rates in the majors. So there has to be some concern when drafting a pitcher who went through the ringer the way Bumgarner did in 2014. And considering he will be one of the first pitchers taken off the board this year, there are definitely concerns regarding his return on investment.
The biggest loss for the Giants this offseason was the departure of Pablo Sandoval to the Red Sox via free agency. The club traded a couple of pitching prospects for McGehee to fill the void left by the Panda. McGehee had a solid season with the Marlins in 2014 (.287/.355/.357), showing good plate discipline (67:102 BB:K) and an ability to provide timely hitting (76 RBI). But the question is how he will fair with his new club?
Any hitter finding a home at AT&T Park will likely see their power numbers suffer, but Marlins Park is a pitcher friendly park as well. Either way, four home runs in 691 plate appearances aren't numbers to rely on, so we can expect more of the same in San Francisco. McGehee will likely be slotted in the sixth spot for the majority of season - possibly moving to fifth against lefties - giving him more opportunities to drive in runs. His batting average and ability to produce RBI are where he will have value, but he won't be anything more than an NL-only option for 2015.
Will Matt Cain return healthy in 2015, and will he return to an elite level?
Cain had his worst season to date in 2014, posting career-highs in ERA (4.18) and HR/9 (1.30), as well as career-lows in innings pitched (90.1) and K/9 (6.97). His season was cut short when he had to have bone chips surgically removed from his throwing elbow. On top of that, he needed another procedure done on his ankle in the offseason. The injuries coupled with the drop in production have many steering clear of the once prominent pitcher.
While the negatives are fairly obvious, there are some positive outlooks regarding Cain's upcoming season. First off, the injury to his elbow was not one that damaged the ligaments. Having bone chips - while painful - is an injury that athletes can play through. This could be one of the reasons he wasn't as sharp. Cain is also a fly ball pitcher who has historically been able to limit the long ball throughout his career. That luck caught up to him over the last two seasons, seeing his HR/FB ratio rise to 10.8% in 2013 and 13.7% in 2014. While Cain isn't likely to change his pitching style at this point of his career, it would be equally unlucky if he continued to surrender home runs at the clip he has over the last two years. And let's not forget what park he calls home: cavernous AT&T Park.
Having surgery midseason was a smart move for the veteran pitcher, as he will start the year with a clean bill of health. Assuming his luck returns to the mean, it wouldn't be surprising to see Cain turn in a fantasy-friendly season in 2015. He will likely be undervalued in this year's drafts.
San Francisco's pitching staff is clearly its strength this season. With Matt Cain returning to supplement Madison Bumgarner, Tim Hudson, and Jake Peavy; it would be hard to find a more consistent veteran staff in the NL West. Tim Lincecum is the weak link yet again, but they can live with his inconsistency as the fifth starter, and the club has Yusmeiro Petit waiting in the wings should Lincecum struggle early. The addition of Nori Aoki this offseason makes the Giants' outfield one of the stronger defensive outfields in the majors, which should limit the runs all of the starters give up in 2015.
On the flip side, San Francisco's offense - more specifically, their power - is a glaring issue this season. The club lost Pablo Sandoval and Mike Morse this offseason and did little to replace their power in the lineup. Even with both players on the team, the Giants finished 17th in total team home runs last year. This offense will need to rely on the top of their order getting on base consistently and hoping Buster Posey and Hunter Pence can drive in runs. Anticipate seeing a lot of close, low-scoring games between the Giants and their opponents in 2015.
Rising:Buster Posey - While Posey did not quite rebound to an MVP level in 2014, he returned more rotisserie value than any catcher and finished sixth in the NL MVP voting. Posey has displayed remarkable durability since his freak injury in 2011, appearing in at least 147 games each of the last three seasons, and he didn't hit below .250 in any month of the 2014 campaign. He struggled in the postseason (.558 OPS) and especially in the World Series (4-for-26), but Posey was one of the main reasons why the Giants earned a wild card berth in the first place, and of course San Francisco won it all regardless. Against right-handers, Posey hit .314/.366/.478, up from .283/.362/.431 a year before, and he was red-hot down the stretch in the regular season, finishing with a .978 OPS in the second half. Sure, his walk rate was down more than two percent (from 10.1% to 7.8%), but Posey again improved his strikeout rate (to 11.4%) and has proven to be an extremely consistent offensive contributor. He'll be just 28 at the start of the 2015 campaign and is still the clear choice for first catcher off the board.
Declining:Tim Lincecum - This is just painful. Lincecum's fall from grace has been rapid and ugly. He has actually stemmed the tide from that 5.18 ERA in 2012, but the 4.37 and 4.74 ERAs the last two years are still horrible and unrosterable, especially since his strikeout rate took a tumble in 2014. He had back-to-back 23 percent rates in 2012-13 before falling below 20 percent for the first time in his career with a 19.9% percent mark last season. The fastball was once integral to his success, but now it holds him back in a big way. He used to average 95 mph, but it was down to 90 mph in 2014 and was beaten around the yard to the tune of an .866 OPS (14th-highest in the league). It's hard not to envision a second act in the bullpen for Lincecum wherein he takes over a high-leverage role and recaptures his stardom. It doesn't appear that 2015 will be the beginning of that second act, though, so we are left with the starter version, which holds more name value than fantasy value.
Sleeper:Brandon Belt - Last year was the second consecutive season in which Belt hit at least 10 homers. That's about the only positive that can be taken from a season in which he first missed eight weeks with a thumb injury and then had to deal with concussion symptoms in the second half. Belt had a weird season statistically in that 10 of his 12 homers came against righties, but his batting average was 30 points better against lefties. Historically, he does not have splits in terms of batting average, but 33 of his 45 career home runs have come against righties. It feels like Belt is on the verge of a career breakout as he has flashed the skills necessary to be a productive player, but injuries in 2014 derailed that progress. Perhaps that will hold down his draft value so savvy owners can pounce on a player who has .280/25/100 potential.
Supersleeper:Andrew Susac - Susac is currently the frontrunner to win the backup catcher role behind Buster Posey. While a backup catcher doesn't hold much value in fantasy, Susac proved that he could handle the role in 2014 after Hector Sanchez went down with multiple concussions. He will likely see a start or two per week to give Posey a rest behind the dish. But what makes him a supersleeper is if the Giants finally decide to move Posey to first or third base permanently in an effort to keep him healthy. If that were to happen, Susac would immediately become a fantasy-relevant catcher.
Kyle Crick, RHP - At this point, it's surprising that minor-league hitters ever take the bat off their shoulder against Crick. Since he was drafted in 2011, strikeouts and walks have accounted for 41 to 48% of the hitters he has faced, and while evaluators can't help but take notice of his strikeout-inducing stuff, he has yet to improve his walk rate. In fact, the 15.3% walk rate he posted as a 21-year-old at Double-A Richmond in 2014 was his highest mark in three years of full-season ball. Of the 10 highest walk rates among MLB pitchers who pitched 60-plus innings last season, only four (Daisuke Matsuzaka, Ubaldo Jimenez, Tony Cingrani and Francisco Liriano) belonged to pitchers who started a game, and none approached Crick's mark. At this point, it may be wise to view "2016 Giants closer" as his new ceiling.
Keury Mella, RHP - With a mid-90s fastball that will miss bats and generate weak contact in the zone against the best hitters in the world thanks to serious late life, Mella profiles as the best starting pitching prospect in the Giants' system. His changeup and curveball cannot match the current utility of his fastball, but with an uptick in command, both secondary offerings could be weapons, giving him the realistic future ceiling of a No. 3 pitcher on a contender. After opening the season laying waste to hitters in the Northwest League, Mella was promoted to Low-A Augusta as a 20-year-old, where he posted a 3.93 ERA (2.79 FIP) with a 63:13 K:BB ratio in 66.1 innings. The 6-foot-2 righty out of the Dominican Republic will face a significant challenge as he moves to High-A San Jose this year, but with continued success, a major league ETA of late 2016 should start to come into focus.
Clayton Blackburn, RHP - The big righty continues to put up solid minor-league numbers, posting a 3.29 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP in 93 innings in his first taste of Double-A. His 85:20 K:BB ratio says a lot about his profile. He lacks the high-end stuff to miss bats in the big leagues, and he will have to survive off command/control and pitchability, but there is a chance he could make it as a No. 4 or No. 5 starter. Blackburn has a very slow, effortless delivery, pounding the zone with well-located pitches. But since his fastball is in the 88-92-mph range, he needs his location to be pinpoint and to use effective sequencing to survive against big-league hitters. The lack of depth in the Giants' big-league rotation makes Blackburn someone to watch in 2015, but at best he will be a back-end innings eater, with little upside for big strikeout totals.
Mac Williamson, OF - Last season was supposed to be Williamson's chance to prove that his power explosion at High-A San Jose in 2013 was sustainable against better pitching. Instead he missed most of the season after needing Tommy John surgery in late April. Unlike Miguel Sano, whose pedigree kept him near the top of prospect rankings despite missing 2014 after tearing his UCL, Williamson will not necessarily be given the benefit of the doubt in the prospect community. The 24-year-old right fielder was selected out of college in the third round of the 2012 draft and turned heads in his first full season, slashing .292/.375/.504 with 25 home runs and 10 steals in 597 plate appearances in 2013. It is not clear exactly when he will be ready to return to game action in 2015, but if he finishes the year healthy and at Double-A, that would have to be considered a success.
Tyler Beede, RHP - The Giants have a history of aggressively pushing talented pitchers selected in the first round up the organization ladder, and Beede could be next in line. The 14th overall pick in 2014 out of Vanderbilt, the 6-foot-4 righty has a mid-90s fastball and solid secondary arsenal, but limiting his walks will be the key for his development in 2015. In 15.1 innings between rookie ball and the Northwest League, the 21-year-old showcased both his ability to miss bats and his propensity for walking batters, posting a 18:7 K:BB ratio and a 2.93 ERA. He will probably be sent to Low-A Augusta to start the season, and despite winning the 2014 World Series, the Giants lack starting pitching depth, so he will be promoted rapidly if the team thinks he can handle it. If everything works, Beede could be a mid-rotation starter for the Giants at some point in 2016.